The Test of Time: Dungeons & Dragons Online
Hello everyone and welcome to the first ever (insert ominous music here, duh duh duh) The Test of Time (terrible reverb). I’m not entirely settled with how the format on this will work so please feel free to provide me with your feedback at the bottom. If it is constructive I’ll probably use it. If it isn’t, well, you aren’t going to burn this house down! The goal as I mentioned earlier this week in my year of Snark column is to go back and take a look at older MMORPGs and cut into them and figure out what made them tick. Some of the good, some of the bad, maybe even some of the lasting impressions they have made on the genre. Then I’ll decide whether or not it’s worth giving a spin in its current state. This will be broken up across two weeks. The first week will be dedicated to anecdotes and background information on the game. The second week will be more of a review of the game at this stage in its life after roughly two weeks of play.
First up to the plate is Dungeons & Dragons Online. I’ve had some pretty decent experiences with DDO over the years. I found it to have a very welcoming and helpful community. I met a handful of players while hosting a series of streamed adventures that I have continued to play with in other games over the years. The staff was all pleasant to deal with when I created the Wayback series for MMORPG.com and hosted live interviews with them. Jerry Snook, a Senior Community Specialist with Turbine, is actively engaged with the DDO community and they even have a very dedicated podcast hosted by fans known as DDOCast.
DDO started off as Dungeons & Dragons Online: Stormreach. DDO’s launch coincided with the release of the 3.5 rule set for D&D and also helped roll out the new campaign setting of Eberron. At the time, and to this day, the Forgotten Realms is the most popular of D&D’s campaign settings. Even then I thought focusing on Eberron was a poor choice and the response from players backs up that impression. Sure there is a vocal minority that loves Eberron as a setting and Eberron does have its redeeming qualities but it never did generate the same name recognition that the Forgotten Realms has earned. A number of years after release Forgotten Realms content was created for DDO but by that time the damage to the game’s popularity had already been done.
Besides choosing to take place in Eberron DDO faced a number of design challenges that had significant impact on the game regardless of which campaign setting it took place in. The most noticeable, and probably the most challenging, was how to deal with spells. In the pen and paper game, as well as much of the cRPGs, spells were limited by the number of times they could be used per day based upon their level and the amount of spells you could memorize of that level each day. This type of mechanic would not really translate well into a MMO setting. Turbine came up with a compromise and gave the game magic points a vast departure from the P&P D&D game. The game still has magic users limited to a certain number of spells they can learn at each level per day but they are no longer limited to cast only those spells they have in their spell book once per day.
Turbine was also challenged in how to tackle the leveling system. In D&D a 20th level character is very powerful. Yet if you play a MMORPG and only level to 20 that doesn’t leave you with a sense your character has grown or progressed in any meaningful way and makes for a pretty steep experience curve. It was decided that at launch characters would only go to level 10 but for each level they would hit a milestone each quarter of a the level known as a rank. This effectively made it so you leveled up 40 times by the time you reached level 10. Currently the game has a max level of 30. So while this decision has been rendered moot it was hotly discussed when the game was initially developed.
Something to chalk up to the, “isn’t that cool” category is the appearance of guest DMs over the years for certain missions in the game. One of the first celebrity DMs was one of the co creators of D&D Gary Gygax. Gary lent his voice to the Delara’s Tomb. You can also find Star Trek the Next Generation, and Bing Bang Theory’s very own WIl Wheaton lending his voice to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Along the way in the Temple of Elemental Evil you can find little lore nodes where Wil talks about Dungeons & Dragons, his introduction to the game, and the positive impact it has had on his life.
One last major topic to touch on this week is a feat that Turbine pulled off with DDO that has changed the landscape of how we look at and play MMORPGs; and probably not for the better. It is no secret that DDO was not a huge success out of the gate and you could see this soon after release with the dwindling player population. Desperate times call for desperate measures and Turbine with their Boston roots took inspiration from Doug Flutie and launched a hail mary pass that was caught in the endzone. Turbine took the unprecedented step and changed business models on DDO converting from a subscription based business model to microtransactions with an in game store on September 9th, 2009. This has subsequently been copied by many different games in the west. Sigh.
Next week we will tackle how the game performs these days and whether or not it is worth your time to play. I’ll also talk about how Wizards of the Coast has marginalized DDO over the past few years and the possible impacts that has had.